$1 Billion Rare Isotope Accelerator Delayed 5 Years

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman has informed Congress that the $1 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA) will be pushed back five years. The massive superconducting accelerator was intended to be the world’s leading facility for exploring the fields of nuclear structure and astrophysics in areas that are central to applied fields such as energy, security, and medicine.

Regardless of one’s political, ecological, economic, or philosophical perspective, nuclear energy will continue to be a very big piece of the energy puzzle for the next several decades, at the very least. While the bulk of this will come from fission, there is considerable effort being made to develop fusion energy as well. Given the importance of fission and fusion, it is strange that R&D on atomic nuclei—the part of the atom that produces nuclear energy—is being put on the back burner by the DOE.

“The main sources of energy in the universe, and on earth, are fusion and fission,” commented Witek Nazarewicz, Scientific Director for Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility at Oak Ridge National Lab. “If we say that we are not interested in how fusion and fission work, we are giving up an important, strategic area of knowledge for human civilization.”

As it stands, President Bush’s proposed 14% budget increase for the DOE’s Office of Science reportedly does not provide enough funding for continuation of the program in 2007, and it is possible that Congress’s final budget will be lower. Hence it is hoped that, at best, R&D on RIA will continue with $5 to $6M budgeted per year until a preliminary engineering design could be prepared, hopefully by 2011.

Politicians and Physicists Miffed

Despite RIA’s troubled past (see Superconductor Week, issue 1904), many in the physics community expressed surprise at the announcement. One official working closely with the DOE on the project commented: “We got very mixed signals from the DOE. One day we were being told that we needed to finish our proposal quickly to get RIA in the FY07 budget, and the next day Bodman announced pushing the project back.”

Even insiders such as U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) seem to have been taken off guard. Only days before Bodman announced the decision to slow development of RIA, Durbin had met with Bodman and issued a statement that the DOE was in the process of finalizing the decision for the placement of RIA—Argonne National Lab and Michigan State University have been competing to host the experiment.

Durbin has often stressed the importance of funding RIA, and he expressed “serious concern” in early February that the Bush administration had yet to provide funds to move forward with the RIA site selection process. Indeed, many in Congress are increasingly disappointed with the Bush administration’s mixed support of basic research in the FY2007 budget (see Superconductor Week, issue 2003). The Ranking Democrat of the House Science Committee, Bart Gordon (D-TN), remarked: “The good news in this budget request is the proposed increase in Federal R&D. The bad news is that that increase is less than the projected rate of inflation.

“Once again, we are investing less than the rate of inflation at a time when many of our international competitors are increasing their investment in science and technology research faster than ever before. Even more alarming is the fact that the Administration’s Science and Technology investment is actually decreasing.” The Federal Science and Technology budget is a good method to evaluate research funding because it represents the amount of funding directed towards the creation of new knowledge and technologies as opposed to development activities.

Basic Research Key to Energy Independence

The U.S. has both the greatest energy needs and the greatest budget to spend on R&D—a fact which prompted an official close to the RIA project to comment: “It is absolutely ironic that everybody in the world can see benefits to building this kind of physics—which has considerable potential benefits to society—and the U.S. cannot.”

President Bush has stated that the U.S. must pursue technology development as a central pillar of our national energy strategy. Yet it would seem the federal government is unwilling to pursue key research initiatives needed for U.S. leadership in the basic research at the heart of energy technology. Indeed, in some areas, U.S. leadership is already diminishing, or has been lost outright.

It is indeed ironic that the major reason given by the President for pursuing energy-related technology was based on the strategic need to loosen our dependence on other nations for energy, yet the future may hold another form of energy dependence in store for us—only this time it will be on foreign technology, foreign intellectual property, and foreign researchers, rather than foreign oil.

Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor, Superconductor Weekhttp://www.superconductorweek.com/

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